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`Jesus family' tree rooted a bit in wishful thinking
[April 19, 2006]

`Jesus family' tree rooted a bit in wishful thinking

(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) ``The Jesus Dynasty'' by James D. Tabor; Simon & Schuster ($27)


Noted Egyptologist John Romer has talked about a cocktail party he attended years ago where a biblical archaeologist dropped a bombshell.

The colleague mentioned offhandedly that he'd discovered a first century Jerusalem tomb bearing the name and body of "a Jesus." Romer gasped and asked him why he hadn't published the find. Could this be the Jesus!? That's not possible, came the reply. Everyone knows Jesus ascended to heaven.

It's that kind of thing that makes biblical archaeology slipperier than the slopes of Mount Ararat. And we get to trudge up those slopes again in "The Jesus Dynasty," an interesting update on the hottest archaeological issue of all.

The book comes on the heels of "The Da Vinci Code" and all the other recent tomes about the "Jesus family."

The major difference is this non-fiction work boasts scholarly heft. The author is chairman of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and has served as a chief editor for a new translation of the Bible. He also knows his field work.

James D. Tabor pours his expertise into this book. In it he re-creates the ancestral lineage of the historical man called Jesus, using archaeological evidence and a deep knowledge of Jewish tradition.

He presents this evidence to conclude that Jesus saw himself as a descendent of royalty and so hoped his family would create a dynasty for religious and political change in Israel. So far, so good. Add theology to this, however, and the book because a curious mix.

Part of the trouble is that archeological "truth" can change faster than a book can be printed. Tabor clings to the authenticity of the now largely discredited James Ossuary, saying it could possibly be from "the Jesus family tomb."

He also names other burials as possible links to the "Jesus family." That's when a sense of wishful thinking begins to creep into the work. (Tabor finally quotes the Israel Antiquities Authority as saying, "The chances of these being the actual burials of the holy family are almost nil.")

When Tabor asks if certain bones could belong not just to Mary Magdalene but to Jesus himself, reader eyebrows should be at full alert. Ask archaeologists about the chances of finding the remains of, say Queen Nefertiti, or of any ancient individual, and they will say the chances are "slim and none." The fragrance of "The De Vinci Code" begins to waft through this book.

But the author excels in other areas and gives "The Jesus Dynasty" its strengths.

Tabor provides a thorough look at "The Cave of John the Baptist" and uses the cave to bring new insight into early Christian events. Revisiting Herod's fortress gives a sharper historical setting to Jesus' life.

Tabor's linguistic skills provide some surprises. Was, for instance, Jesus really a carpenter or even the son of a carpenter? Or was he a "day laborer" instead.

But ultimately the author's religious views are allowed to overshadow new factual evidence about Jesus and his world.

"The Jesus dynasty reminds us of a Christianity ... that retains a cutting message against all forms of injustice, unrighteousness and oppression while setting forth the ideal of the Kingdom of God realized on earth," Tabor writes.

So the conclusions and the message of "The Jesus Dynasty" are muddied. Those biblical slopes remain slippery for even those who have walked them many times.


(c) 2006, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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